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Caravan to Chautauqua



 

The summer after Florence’s passing was a difficult one. To begin with, I ran over Sophia’s foot. She jumped out of my car to grab a tennis racket while I was still backing up, and her left ankle got caught in the front wheel. Sophia and I both fainted. She ended up having surgery under full anesthesia and two big screws put in. Then she had to wear a huge boot and use crutches for the rest of the summer, which put her in a bad mood but at least gave her a lot of time to practice the piano.

One good thing in our lives, though, was Coco, who got cuter by the day. She had the same strange effect on all four of us: Just looking at her lifted our spirits. This was true even though all my ambitions for her had been replaced by a single dynamic: She would look at me with her pleading chocolate almond eyes—and I would do whatever she wanted, which was usually to go running for four miles, rain, sleet, or shine. In return, Coco was compassionate. I knew she hated it when I yelled at the girls, but she never judged me and knew that I was trying to be a good mother.

It didn’t upset me that I had revised my dreams for Coco—I just wanted her to be happy. I had finally come to see that Coco was an animal, with intrinsically far less potential than Sophia and Lulu. Although it is true that some dogs are on bomb squads or drug-sniffing teams, it is perfectly fine for most dogs not to have a profession or even any special skills.

Around that time, I had a life-changing conversation with my brilliant friend and colleague Peter, who speaks six languages and reads eleven, including Sanskrit and Ancient Greek. A gifted pianist who had debuted in New York as a teenager, Peter attended one of Sophia’s recitals at the Neighborhood Music School.

Afterward, Peter told me that he thought Sophia’s playing was really extraordinary. Then he added, “I don’t want to meddle or anything, but have you thought about the Yale School of Music? Maybe Sophia should audition for one of the piano faculty there.”

“You mean . . . change teachers?” I said, my mind racing. The Neighborhood Music School had been one of my favorite places for almost a decade.

“Well, yes,” said Peter. “I’m sure the Neighborhood Music School is a wonderful place. But compared to the other kids here Sophia’s in a different league. Of course it all depends on what your goals are. Maybe you just want to keep things fun.”

This took me aback. No one had ever accused me of trying to keep things fun. And coincidentally, I’d just received a phone call from another friend raising the very same question about Lulu.

That night, I sent two crucial e-mails. The first was to a violinist and recent graduate of the Yale School of Music named Kiwon Nahm, whom I’d hired on occasion to help Lulu practice. The second was to Professor Wei-Yi Yang, the most recent addition to Yale’s illustrious piano faculty and by all accounts a piano prodigy and sensation.

Things moved faster than I expected. By a tremendous stroke of luck, Professor Yang knew of Sophia; he had heard her play a Mozart piano quartet at a fund-raiser and been favorably impressed. He and I agreed to meet for lunch in late August, when he returned from his summer concertizing.

Something equally exciting happened with Lulu. Kiwon—who had debuted at Lincoln Center as a soloist at the age of twelve—generously mentioned Lulu to a former teacher named Almita Vamos. Mrs. Vamos and her husband, Roland, are among the leading violin instructors in the world. They’ve been honored by the White House six times. Their former students include well-known soloists like Rachel Barton and many winners of prestigious international competitions. Based in Chicago, they teach only very gifted students, a large proportion of them Asian.

We waited on tenterhooks to see if Mrs. Vamos would respond. A week later, the email came. Mrs. Vamos invited Lulu to come play for her at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York, where she was in residence that summer. The date Mrs. Vamos chose was July 29—only three weeks away.

For the next twenty days, Lulu did nothing but practice violin. To squeeze as much improvement out of Lulu as possible, I paid Kiwon to come twice, sometimes three times a day to work with her. When Jed saw the cashed checks, he couldn’t believe his eyes. I told him we’d make up for it by not going out to dinner all summer and not buying new clothes. “Also,” I said hopefully, “there is the advance you just got for your novel.”

“I’d better start on a sequel now,” Jed replied grimly.

“There is nothing better to spend our money on than our children,” I said.

Jed was in for another unpleasant surprise. I had imagined that the drive to see Mrs. Vamos would take three, maybe four hours, and had told Jed as much. The day before we were scheduled to leave, Jed got on MapQuest and said, “So where’s this place again?”

Unfortunately, I hadn’t realized that New York State is so big. Chautauqua turned out to be located near Lake Erie, not far from Canada.

“Amy, it’s nine hours away—not three,” Jed said in exasperation. “How long are we staying?”

“Just one night. I signed Sophia up for a computer animation course, which starts Monday—something exciting for her while she’s on crutches. But I’m sure we can make the drive in seven—”

“What are we supposed to do with Coco?” Jed interrupted. Coco had been housebroken for only two months and had never traveled anywhere before.

“I thought it would be fun to take her with us. It’ll be our first vacation together,” I said.

“It’s not exactly a vacation to drive eighteen hours in two days,” Jed pointed out, a little selfishly, I thought. “And what about Sophia’s broken foot? Isn’t she supposed to keep her leg elevated? How are we going to fit everybody in the car?”

We drove an old Jeep Cherokee. I suggested that Sophia could lie down in the backseat with her head on Lulu’s lap and her leg propped up on pillows. Coco could go all the way in back with the suitcases and violins (yes, plural, which I’ll explain). “There’s one more thing,” I added. “I asked Kiwon if she would come with us and told her that I’d pay her by the hour, including transportation time.”

“What?” Jed was incredulous. “That’s going to cost three thousand dollars. And how are we going to fit her in the car? Put her in the back with Coco?”

“She can take her own car—I told her I’d pay for gas—but actually she really didn’t want to make the trip. It’s a long way, and she’d have to cancel her other teaching hours. To make it more appealing for her, I invited her new boyfriend, Aaron, to come too, and offered to put them up for three nights at a nice hotel. I found an amazing place called the William Seward Inn, and I booked them each a double deluxe room.”

“For three nights,” said Jed. “You’re joking.”

“If you want, you and I can stay at a cheaper place, to save money.”

“I don’t want.”

“Aaron’s a great guy,” I told Jed persuasively. “You’re going to love him. He’s a French horn player, and he loves dogs. He’s offered to watch Coco for free while we’re with Mrs. Vamos.”

We left at the crack of dawn, with Kiwon and Aaron in a white Honda following behind our white Jeep. It wasn’t a pleasant trip. Jed insisted on driving the whole way, a macho thing, which gets on my nerves. Sophia insisted that she was in pain and losing circulation. “Remind me again—why am I coming on this trip?” she asked innocently.

“Because the family always has to stay together,” I replied. “Also, this is an important event for Lulu, and you have to support your sister.”

The whole nine hours I sat tense and cross-legged in the front passenger seat, with Coco’s food, equipment, and fuzzy sleepy mat where my feet should have been. My head was wedged between Sophia’s two horizontal crutches, which were suctioned in place on the windshield.

Meanwhile, Lulu was acting like she didn’t have a care in the world. That’s how I knew she was terrified.

 




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